THIS WEEK is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, and whenever the conversation turns to eating disorders, it is likely to begin something like this: "Eating disorders? Oh, that's a white woman's disease."
That's the prevailing myth, often perpetuated in the mainstream media and in research, too. But, sadly, eating disorders do not discriminate, and an unprecedented number of black girls and women suffer from this disease, too.
Truth be told, the thin-body ideals most frequently characterized in film, television and fashion magazines have become so institutionalized that as many as 80 percent of American women are dissatisfied with their appearance, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. And this pernicious obsession with the exaggerated thin body is negatively influencing woman, and many men, too, not just here, but globally.
So, forget about what you've heard. Eating disorders are a black thing, too. To shed some much-needed light on the subject, I spoke to Dr. Gayle Brooks, clinical psychologist and vice president and chief clinical officer of the Renfrew Center of Florida, an offshoot of the Renfrew Center, which opened here in Philadelphia in 1985 as the first residential facility exclusively dedicated to treating eating disorders.
Q: Dr. Brooks, there are lots of myths in the black community around eating disorders, and the word on the street is that sisters don't have this problem . . . it's a white-woman thing. Since you began this work in the '80s, when did you first notice eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia and binge eating) in the African-American community?
A: When I began this work 30 years ago, I was seeing only Caucasian women, and not women in my own ethnic group. Then we did a workshop in 1990, on women of color and eating disorders. Eating disorders is not just a white woman's disease, and, increasingly, it's become a global issue.
Just this past year, at the Academy of Eating Disorders, I was on a plenary discussing global eating disorders in China, Latin America, and the rising incidence and recognition in Africa and other developing areas. As countries become more Westernized, we see more issues with eating disorders.
Q: That's shocking. When it comes to African-American women and girls, how affected are we by Western cultural values, standards of beauty, and what shape do eating disorders generally take in the black community?
A: Among African-Americans, binge/bulimia have a much higher incidence, though African-American women have the same bulimia rates as white women. There is an element of racism and the pressure to fit in. It's subtle and not so subtle. The more you fit in, the more benefits you may reap.
Q: What are some of the triggers? Is there a particular personality trait that is more inclined to fall victim to an eating disorder?
A: Certain things can make a person more vulnerable. There's a correlation between significant childhood trauma and things like poverty and racism. Those with a biological makeup that tends to suffer from anxiety, depression and low self-esteem are more prone to developing an eating disorder. Being isolated and disconnected from the African-American community can also be a trigger.
Q: So, growing up in a predominantly white community or attending a predominantly white school could potentially trigger an eating disorder for black girls. How do we protect our girls from this?
A: Having a strong ethnic identity tends to be a more protective influence. Generally, in the African-American community, body size is less tied to one's sense of self-worth, and there is less pressure to be stick thin. Black beauty is more defined by your essence, which is a protective factor. But the protective factors can go only so far in a culture that is obsessed with thin. And then there's the feedback, that you're not OK - you have dark skin and you're not thin.
Q: What are early signs that parents should look out for?
A: A child with a preoccupation with what they're eating. Skipping meals, vomiting or consuming a lot of food. And a child who says negative things about her body. It's not normal for children to lose weight. If you see weight loss, what's going on that's causing this?
Q: What can parents do?
A: There's a place for all foods; it's about moderation, taking care of your body. Get rid of the notion of good and bad foods. No more going on and off diets.
What you do is more powerful than what you say. The power of a family eating together helps children develop healthy eating habits and connections. Parents also need to be accepting of themselves - we come in all types of shapes and sizes.